By Max Rodenbeck

The International Herald Tribune
Friday, January 4, 2008

The Great Arab Conquests How the Spread of Islam Changed the World
We Live In. By Hugh Kennedy. Illustrated. 421 pages. $27.95. Da
Capo Press.

Few events in history have had so swift, profound and far-reaching an
impact as the arrival of Islam. Within a mere 15 years of the Prophet
Muhammad's death, in A.D. 632, his desert followers had conquered all
the centers of ancient Near Eastern civilization. They had erased
a great and enduring regional power, Persia; reduced its brilliant
rival, Byzantium, to a rump state; and carved from their territories
an empire as vast as that of Rome at its height. Within 100 years,
Muslim armies were harrying the frontiers of Tang dynasty China in
the east, while 5,000 miles to the west, they had charged across
Spain to clash with the Merovingian princes of what is now France.

The triumph was not just military. The explosive expansion of Islam
severed at a stroke the 1,000-year-old links of commerce, culture,
politics and religion that had bound the southern and northern
shores of the Mediterranean. It created, for the first and only time,
an empire based entirely upon a single faith, bound by its laws and
devoted to its propagation. It uprooted long-embedded native religions,
like Zoroastrianism in Persia, Buddhism in Central Asia and Hinduism
in much of the Indus Valley. It transformed Arabic from a desert
dialect into a world language that, for centuries, supplanted Latin
and Greek as the main repository of human knowledge.

And yet strangely, the question of how the Muslim Arabs achieved
all this, in such a short time, remains puzzling. Not that no one
has tried to explain it. The Arabs themselves built a rich literary
tradition around the seemingly miraculous success of Islam. But these
martial histories of the futuhat, or "openings," won by the new faith
tended to focus on the moral superiority, zeal and courage of the
victors rather than on more mundane factors that might have aided
them. Much attention was paid to such details as the genealogy of
Arab generals and the precise division of booty, at the expense of
accurate chronology and geography.

Modern historians have generally discounted the Arab histories,
emphasizing instead how the calamitous upheavals of late antiquity
sapped capacities to resist the Muslim invasions. Because of the
difficult nature of textual sources, which include rare materials in
Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Persian and even Chinese as well
as Arabic, and because of the relative paucity of archaeological
research into early Islam, recent scholarship has also tended to be
area- and theme-specific. Not for a generation has anyone attempted
a broad political history of Islam's first century.

Few writers are better equipped for such a task than Hugh Kennedy. A
professor of medieval history at the University of St. Andrews, in
Scotland, he has written scores of articles and numerous books on
the early period of Islam, including popular histories as well as
scholarly studies. Kennedy is a fastidious historian, refraining
from undue speculation and sticking close to his sources. He is
also a judicious one. Rather than dismissing suspect material,
like triumphalist Muslim histories, he prefers to sift through them
in search of clues. Occasionally, he finds corroborating evidence
that some of these accounts appear closer to the truth than fellow
historians have assumed.

Given the immense geographical scope of the work and the spotty,
disjointed nature of the evidence, Kennedy has wisely chosen to
organize the book simply, in more or less chronological fashion, one
campaign after another. He begins, however, with a pair of useful
chapters, one surveying the textual and archaeological sources for
the period, the second outlining the shape of Arab society at the
onset of the great Islamic expansion.

Far from being wild, illiterate Bedouins, Kennedy shows, the early
Muslim leaders were sophisticated townsmen and highly competent
commanders. Once they had rallied a critical mass of converts, the
swift adherence to the new faith of tribes from across the Arabian
Peninsula created its own impetus for conquest. Arabian society had
been geared to intertribal conflict. Having now submitted to the
authority of a single leader, the Muslim caliph, nomadic warriors had
to direct their energies outward or risk tearing the nascent Islamic
nation apart. Their fighting spirit was further primed by the doctrine
of jihad, which promised both earthly and heavenly rewards.

Martyrs were assured a special place in paradise, while soldiers were
allowed to keep four-fifths of captured booty.

Yet the Muslims' esprit de corps, their desert-trained mobility
and the cleverness of their generals still cannot explain how such
astonishingly small armies - perhaps 30,000 men for the conquest of
Syria, 10,000 for Iraq, 16,000 for Egypt - so swiftly overran these
densely populated lands. Several other factors proved crucial. The
most important was timing. Beginning around 540, repeated epidemics
of bubonic plague appear to have drastically reduced populations
across the Near East and the Mediterranean. Political turmoil was
to weaken the region more. Using the assassination of the Byzantine
emperor Maurice in 602 as a pretext, the shah of Sasanian Persia,
Chosroes II, mounted a blitzkrieg that swept his armies through
the rich provinces of Syria and Egypt, and across Anatolia as far
as Constantinople. It was not until 624 that the Byzantines under
Heraclius counter-attacked, landing an army on the shore of the Black
Sea, behind Persian lines, that sacked and pillaged its way south
through the Persian heartlands. Heraclius recaptured Jerusalem in 630,
while Chosroes' son Kavad II, who ascended to the throne after his
father was murdered in a coup, sued for peace.

But the decades of war, in the manner of a Quentin Tarantino script,
had left both Byzantium and Persia stunned and bleeding. The sudden
Muslim advance found them completely unprepared. As Kennedy notes, "If
Muhammad had been born a generation earlier and he and his successors
had attempted to send armies against the great empires in, say, 600,
it is hard to imagine they would have made any progress at all."

Worse yet, for Heraclius, schism among Christian sects led many
Egyptians and Syrians to side with the Arab invaders against the
Byzantines, who had tried to impose orthodoxy by brute force. To the
Muslims' further advantage, they demanded relatively lenient terms:
those among the vanquished who did not embrace Islam could worship as
they liked, on payment of an annual tax that was no more burdensome
than what they had paid before.

The Muslim advance was not always painless, as Kennedy reveals in
a poignant chapter that gives voice to the conquered. On several
occasions, cities that resisted were razed, their inhabitants
slaughtered or enslaved. In North Africa, the scale of slave raiding
was so large that it sparked a huge Berber uprising. Across much of
the swiftly conquered territory, the Muslims' hold remained tenuous
for generations. It is significant that the expansion out of Arabia
happened in two waves. The first exploited the weakness of the
collapsed neighboring empires. The second, two generations later,
used the Muslims' newfound strength but failed to push borders back
very far. It is remarkable, in fact, how stable the peripheries of
Islam have remained ever since, excepting the loss of Spain to the
Christian Reconquista and Muslim forays into India, the Balkans and
the East Indies. But these events came centuries later, and Islam's
final military triumphs were achieved not by Arabs, but by Turks.

Kennedy's reluctance to pronounce sweeping judgments may disappoint
general readers. His preference for dwelling on lesser-known episodes
like the conquest of Central Asia, rather than on such oft-related
exploits as the capture of Spain, is also more likely to please
scholars than laymen. Fellow historians may fault Kennedy, too, for
relying on textual evidence more than on archaeology. Nevertheless,
this brisk yet richly detailed account is likely to remain the best
we have for many years.

ESSAY: Robert F. Worth is the Beirut bureau chief for The Times. ONE
dark afternoon last winter, after too many hours spent studying
Arabic verbs, I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a video
on my computer screen. An Arab man was holding forth tediously,
his words half drowned by the rain outside. At first all I could
make out was the usual farrago of angry consonants and strangled
vowels. No progress there. Then, at last, the letters lighted up at
the back of my brain. "I understand what he's saying!" I shrieked to
the empty apartment, spinning backward in my desk chair. "I understand
every word!"

I felt a warm rush of gratitude to the speaker, a bespectacled
doctor. It made no difference that he was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda's
No. 2 man, or that he was threatening to slaughter large numbers
of Americans. He spoke a slow, clear fusha, the formal version of
Arabic I had been struggling to decipher on the page for 10 hours a
day. Even better, his words matched my limited vocabulary: arsala,
"to send"; jaish, "army"; raees, "president." I was almost drunk
with exhilaration.

Moments later the darkness dropped again. The terrorist disappeared,
his rarefied language replaced by the clipped, quotidian accents of a
political analyst. This was closer to the ordinary Arabic I would need
for my work, and I understood precisely nothing. Was I wasting my time?

Learning Arabic has been like that: moments of elation alternating
with grim, soul-churning despair. The language is not so much hard
as it is vast, with dozens of ways to form the plural and words
that vary from region to region, town to town. With every sign of
progress it seems to deepen beneath you like a coastal shelf. It is
only small comfort to read about the early struggles of distinguished
Arabists like Gertrude Bell, who complained that she could pronounce
the Arabic "h" only while holding down her tongue with one finger,
or Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who writes of years spent in an alternate
world called "Dictionary Land."

But the rigors of study were a small price for the chance to catch up
with my surroundings. After spending the better part of two years as
a reporter in Baghdad, I was tired of playing the doltish Westerner,
eyes always darting blankly between translator and interviewee. The
scattered phrases I knew seemed only to underscore my ignorance: Wayn
alinfijar? I'd say ("Where's the explosion?"), or Shaku maku? ("How's
it going?"), and I'd get a condescending pat on the back. When my
bosses offered a year of intensive language training, I jumped at
the chance.

For anyone who knows only European languages, to wade into Arabic
is to discover an endlessly strange and yet oddly ordered lexical
universe. Some words have definitions that go on for pages and seem
to encompass all possible meanings; others are outlandishly precise.

Paging through the dictionary one night, I found a word that means
"to cut off the upper end of an okra." There are lovely verbs
like sara, "to set out at night"; comical ones like tabaadawa,
"to pose as a Bedouin"; and simply bizarre ones like dabiba, "to
abound in lizards." Dabiba (presumably applied to towns or regions)
is medieval, but I wouldn't put it past Dr. Zawahri to revive it. The
language can also be surprisingly vague to a Western ear. I was always
troubled by Arabic's tendency to elide the distinction between "a lot"
and "too much." I will never forget hearing an Iraqi friend, as we
walked down a crowded Brooklyn street together, say loudly in English,
"There are too many black people here." At the same time, all Arabic
words have simple three- or four-letter roots, with systematically
derived cognates that allow you to unfold a whole range of meanings
from a single word. The word for "to cook," for instance, is related
in a predictable way to the words for "kitchen," "dish," "chef,"
and so on. Arabic speakers are often dismayed to discover that the
same principle is less common in English.

As the months passed, the sounds of the language were gradually
transformed. Arabic's hard "h" letter, so difficult to pronounce at
first, began to seem like a lovely breath of air, as if countless
tiny parachutes were lifting the words above their glottal base. The
notorious "ayn" sound, which often takes months for English speakers to
produce, lost its guttural edge and acquired, to my ear, the throaty
rumble of a well-tuned sports car.

Soon I began marching into the Arabic markets on Atlantic Avenue in
Brooklyn, near where I live, and testing out my textbook phrases.

Generally I was met with a confused look and then a smiling apology:
"We don't hear too much fusha around here." Linguistically speaking,
what I had done was a bit like asking an Italian for directions
in Latin. Modern fusha, also known as Modern Standard Arabic,
is a modified version of the Classical Arabic in the Koran. It is
the language of public address, and of any newscast on Al Jazeera
and other Arabic television stations. It also corresponds to the
written language, and any educated Arab can understand it. Arabs
have enormous respect for fusha ("eloquent" is the word's literal
meaning), especially in its fully inflected Koranic form; that is why
Al Qaeda's leaders, like clerics and most political leaders, place
great emphasis on the classical idiom. But the language of the street
is different. The colloquial versions of Arabic are derived from fusha,
and they are dialects rather than wholly separate languages.

Still, the gulf can be substantial in vocabulary as well as
pronunciation, and takes getting used to. One of the pleasures of
learning Arabic is hearing long-familiar words in their natural
context, shorn of the poisonous ideological garb they often bear in
this country. Once you begin to do that, American attitudes toward
the language itself, along with all things Arab and Muslim, can begin
to seem jarringly hostile and suspicious.

To take a recent example: Last winter, New York City announced plans
for a new Arabic-language public secondary school in Brooklyn. An
aggressive campaign against the school soon sprang up, despite the
uncontroversial presence of Chinese, Russian, Spanish and other
dual-language schools in the city. Opponents and local newspaper
columnists began branding the (as yet unopened) school a "jihad
recruiting center" and a "madrassa" and demanding it be closed. For
Arabic speakers, the very title of the "Stop the Madrassa" campaign -
now national in scope - is bound to have an uncomfortable ring.

Madrassa is the Arabic word for "school"; it could not be more
wholesome. But as the school's opponents know, in this country it has
taken on a far more sinister valence, thanks to press reports about
religious schools in Pakistan that are said to teach Taliban-style
militancy. The school's principal was later replaced after a fracas
over another Arabic word, intifada, that has taken on a meaning here
entirely different from the one it has among Arabs.

One has to wonder whether these attitudes have inhibited our ability
to train more Arabic speakers. Although enrollments in postsecondary
Arabic study more than doubled from 2002 to 2006, the attrition rate
is high, and the number of students who persist and become truly
proficient - much harder to measure - is very small. The government
and military are still struggling to find the translators they need.

The reasons for this failure are many, and inseparable from the Arab
world's long history of troubled relations with the West. But alongside
them is the simple fact that even with the best of teachers - like
mine - the language requires a degree of patience and commitment
that verges on the absurd. "Don't worry," one of my teachers told
me half-jokingly. "Arabic is only hard for the first 10 years. After
that it gets easier."